DURING President Clinton's recent visit to Moscow, a significant event occurred that received inadequate media coverage: the president of the United States met with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II. It was an act that recognized Russian spiritual revival and the significant and still growing role that the Church and Patriarch Alexy are playing in today's Russia.
In late September 1993, the Patriarch cut short his visit to the United States and flew back to Moscow. In the midst of the confrontation between President Boris Yeltsin's government and the dissolved conservative-dominated Parliament, the Patriarch started an unprecedented peacemaking mission, bringing the foes to the negotiation table.
This effort failed to prevent violence. In the aftermath of the bloody outcome in October some Russian observers criticized the Church. Zealous democrats said that the Patriarch - who had blessed Mr. Yeltsin's presidency in 1991 and supported democratic forces during the August putsch that year - should have condemned the Communists and endorsed the democrats in 1993. Meanwhile conservative nationalists, among them some Orthodox laymen, priests, and bishops, wished they had won the Church's favor. The strength and significance of the Church was precisely in its non-partisanship.
Liberal Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta publishes monthly ratings of Russia's top 100 influential public figures. After October, Patriarch Alexy rose from the 53rd to the 10th position on this list.
The Church's serious public role at a national level might be difficult to understand for Americans, whose successful democracy has been built in part on the notion of the separation of church and state and on the political and economic basis of freedom and prosperity.
In Russia the Byzantine theological ideal of simphonia, or co-sounding harmony between church and state was hardly ever achieved. The boundary between the two has shifted and often has been a source of conflict, but historically they have been virtually inseparable. The public role of the Church was especially high at times of trouble or government instability, particularly in the 14th and early 17th centuries.
Amid the catastrophe of revolution in 1917, the Church convened for its Local Council and decided to restore the institution of Patriarch, which had been abolished by Peter the Great in the early 18th century. Metropolitan Tikhon of Moscow, who not long before had been a very successful Russian Orthodox Bishop of America, was elected Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.
Now Patriarch Tikhon is a saint. He is considered the first in the long, almost endless row of New Martyrs of Russia - clergymen and laymen who were shot or who died in numerous camps and prisons not for opposing the Communist regime, but for professing their faith. In the 1920s and '30s, Christianity in Russia underwent the kind of persecution that is comparable only to that of its early beginnings.
The Russian Orthodox Church endured, as did Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and other religions in the Soviet Union. What was the cost? High, sometimes too high. Priests had to develop a special priority list, survival of the Church being on top. But its traditional communal and public mission was completely prohibited by the Soviet regime.
Of all the changes that have taken place in Russia since former President Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, the revival of religious life is one of the most visible and probably the only one that enjoys a truly national consensus. Thousands of churches are being reopened, restored, and sanctified after decades of decay and defilement. Monasteries are becoming monasteries again after being prisons, factories, summer camps, and museums. Millions of people of different ages are getting baptized and practicing. Charity organizations and Sunday schools are opening.
Many Russians view the Orthodox Church not only as a spiritual source, but as one of national identity. No other institution in today's Russia can offer the kind of historical continuity and connection with pre-Soviet Russia that the Church does.
In its quest for the future, Russia is regaining its roots in history. By coming to the newly rebuilt Kazan Cathedral and by meeting the Patriarch, Mr. Clinton demonstrated his respect for Russian history as an active force in today's search for identity. Together with its people, the Russian Orthodox Church is recovering from 70 years of totalitarian oppression and is in the process of retaking its traditional place in the Russian society. This presents many challenges for the Church itself, and so far it has been tackling them with dignity and advancing with amazing success.
As he proved last fall, the Patriarch can at least try to act as a force for reconciliation between political groups in the face of a threat of civil war. Today Patriarch Alexy is a more stable figure on Russian public landscape than anybody, including Yeltsin himself. Whatever faction comes to power in Moscow, it is most unlikely that the Church will be restricted once again. It will always be influential.
There has been considerable discussion whether it was right or wrong that Clinton refused to meet with Russia ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Meeting the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia was a wise thing to do and a long-term asset for the US administration. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.